Welcome to Episode 6 of Superman and the SoccerSmith's 4-4-2 Soccer Q&A. Better late than never! Here we go!
1) Superman (SM): In your opinion, are the Galaxy the favorites to win the west, and ultimately the cup, or can someone else de-throne Bruce Arena's squad?
SoccerSmith (SS): First, let’s note that LA didn’t win the West last year, Seattle did. And Seattle did so despite missing Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin for the World Cup while LA was with Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Gyasi Zardes all year. Seattle’s since lost Yedlin, and LA essentially traded Donovan for Steven Gerrard, but I think Seattle has to enter the season as the regular season favorite. If we’re talking MLS Cup, I think LA gets the edge because Seattle has yet to translate regular season accolades into postseason success while LA obviously has. That said, there are a lot of teams that will be a threat this year so I’d venture that it’s going to be pretty wide open.
SM: While I agree with you on the West being wide open this season, I seriously think it's the Galaxy's to lose. Steven Gerrard, even at his "advanced age," is still a world-class player with a real European pedigree and this really looks to be Zardes' breakout season. Seattle played tremendously and didn't have Dempsey and Yedlin for a period last summer, but now they don't have Yedlin at all and I'm not certain they've adequately replaced him. I think it'll be a tight race, but ultimately so long as they stay consistent, LA has the best chance at winning both the West and the Cup in my opinion.
2) SS: We saw a glimpse of the old Charlie Davies in last year’s postseason. Do you think he can be productive for an entire season?
SM: If he manages to stay healthy, yes I do. Charlie Davies has something that not many professional athletes do: A second chance. No one seriously expected him to come back from that accident, much less be the type of player he was before said accident. I think there's a drive and fire under him to be even better than he was before and he has the team around him to help him with that now. Be on the lookout for him to score lots of goals this year if he stays fit.
SS: The biggest question with Davies remains whether or not he can stay on the field. He made just 13 starts during the 2014 regular season before exploding for four goals and an assist in five playoff matches. He's got an exceptional supporting cast right now, and he's just a few years removed from an 11 goal campaign with DC United. With Lee Nguyen, Teal Bunbury, Jermaine Jones and now the addition of Juan Agudelo to take some of the pressure off, I think Davies has the potential to put up MVP-type numbers. Again, IF he can stay healthy.
3) SM: Do you think the MLS All-Star game should continue in it's current format? Or, should it switch to either an East Vs. West format or maybe switch to the format that the NFL used for the pro bowl this year, where two captains/coaches picked teams?
SS: Before I go into answering your question, let me be clear on one thing: I HATE the Pro Bowl. It’s a terrible all-star game in every way. With that said, I honestly like the current MLS All-Star format. Let’s remember, the All-Star game is for the fans. Yes, making the squad is an honor for the players, but the only reason the game itself exists is for the fans. And if you’re a soccer fan and you can see Manchester United or Chelsea or Bayern Munich play stateside, even in an exhibition, that’s a big deal. If MLS can continue to draw big name clubs, I think this is a great model. Now if we’re talking about playing the likes of West Ham (2008) or Fulham (2005), then we probably need to revisit our business strategy.
SM: Agreed to a point. While it's great that MLS fans and soccer fans in general get a chance to see teams like Manchester United or AS Roma play, in the end how much fun is it to see the MLS all-stars get beat 4-1? The reason I brought up the Pro Bowl is because it seemed like a concept that was suited to soccer. Two captains picking teams from a pool of All-Stars voted on by fans and coaches. It reminds me of Sunday morning pick-up games where the game itself is at its most pure. For me that game could be way more competitive and therefore more fun to watch, which could be even better for the fans.
4) SS: Can Montreal compete with Pachuca in the CCL or are they hopelessly outgunned?
SM: I think outgunned is being generous. Montreal are in a transition period right now. A lot of new players trying to adjust to a system getting thrown into a Champions League match while having very little fan support cannot be good for morale, never mind the fact that they're coming off of a horrendous regular season. Pachuca, on the other hand, have won this particular tournament 4 times and are one of the most successful clubs in Liga MX. I think it's going to be a very long 90 minutes for the Impact.
SS: No question Pachuca are the heavy favorites, but Montreal gained some confidence this week with an exhibition win south of the border against Cruz Azul. Additionally, Pachuca is off to a rocky start this season with just two wins and a draw in six matches, so they're certainly vulnerable. Plus, Montreal has nothing to lose. They weren't supposed to make it this far anyways, but here they are. I think if Pachuca goes up early, this could be an ugly game to the tune of 5-1 or worse, but if Montreal sticks around and catches a break they could steal a win before heading home for the second leg. So I'll go with outgunned, but I'll give them a puncher's chance.
1) SM: After some uninspiring recent performances for the U.S., Bobby Wood switched his club situation up and has scored two goals in as many matches for his new club. Can this be the spark needed for him to become the player Jurgen Klinsmann thinks he can be for the USMNT?
SS: I’m not ready to jump on the Bobby Wood bandwagon after one brace, but I’m excited to see the change of scenery appears to have done him well. We’ll see what he does in the coming weeks, as that will probably dictate whether or not he returns to the National Team picture. Remember Aron Johannsson will be back soon, and Rubio Rubin is lurking while Gyasi Zardes already appears to have passed him on the depth chart. Still, I can’t help but observe that strikers are not an American strongpoint and in recent World Cups we’ve brought along AND PLAYED Edson Buddle and Chris Wondolowski. If Wood keeps scoring goals, he’ll be hard to ignore.
SM: Agreed. While it's great that he seems to have found his goal-scoring touch, unless he keeps it up and really lights the scoresheet on fire, I'm going to reserve judgement. Two goals in two games is great, but hardly a call for a starting spot with the Nats. Aron Johannsson, Gyasi Zardes, Rubio Rubin, Terrance Boyd, Juan Agudelo... These are all guys who, depending on form and fitness, could have an honest shot at starting alongside Jozy in the future. I wish nothing but the best for Wood, but if he wants to nail down a spot, he needs to keep up this current form.
2) SS: How much more does Abby Wambach have left in the tank?
SM: I honestly don't know, but I'd like to think it's enough. Enough to where the burden of scoring goals doesn't rest solely on the shoulders of Alex Morgan, Sidney Leroux, and Christen Press. Wambach brings more of a physical presence up top than those three do combined in my opinion, and she has a tendency to lead from the front, even though she's not the captain. I think that we will need her this summer to be at her best so our other forwards don't get pushed too hard and take a chance on burning out. I'll tell you what, ask me again in July.
SS: Wambach hasn't scored since dropping four on Costa Rica in the CONCACAF Championship Final back in October, a stretch of 6 matches, 4 of which she's started. You have to go all the way back to 2010-2011 to find a similar stretch when she endured a 7-match run including the entire 2011 Algarve Cup without scoring. And those are the only two 6-game goalless stretches in her distinguished career so we're in more-or-less uncharted territory. Wambach is now 34, and time catches up with everyone eventually. I honestly think if the U.S. can pull out a World Cup win this summer, we may see Wambach walk away from the game. So whatever's left in the tank at this point, my bet is that we see it all in the coming months.
3) SM: With Tim Howard on his self-imposed sabbatical from the USMNT, and considering the recent performances from Nick Rimando, is Brad Guzan still the current no. 1 in your mind?
SS: If you figure that Guzan has been the consensus #2 behind Howard for the past few years, then I think he’s still the current #1 by default. Nothing he’s done for club or country to this point has dropped him below Rimando, and likewise, nothing Rimando has done would give him the bump past Brad. And then don’t forget to factor in Klinsmann’s European bias. The fact that Guzan plays for Aston Villa and Rimando plays in MLS is not something that will likely be ignored. I expect Guzan to be the guy for the Gold Cup this summer, and if he falters, then that would open up the door for someone new, whether that’s Rimando, Bill Hamid, Sean Johnson or someone else under the radar.
SM: I honestly love our keeper situation. With Guzan and Rimando, I think it's a case of 1 and 1a. They play the position in a similar style and the only real difference I can see is that Guzan is taller. Taking Klinsman's European bias into account, I would agree that Guzan is still the current number 1. However, I feel that everytime Nick Rimando takes the field, he makes a very strong argument about his quality between the sticks. Should Brad Guzan fall out of form or suffer an injury I can honestly say I would not have a worry in the world about Rimando taking over.
4) SS: Give me the three U.S. based players that weren’t in Klinsmann’s Jan/Feb camp that you think need to get a look next time around.
SM: (1) Andrew Farrell. The guy has real pace and, from the games I've seen him play in is a legitimate defender and a threat going forward. (2) Juan Agudelo. He's only recently back stateside, but the kid is young and hugely talented. If Bobby Wood can get a look with 3 goals in something like 50 appearances, Agudelo deserves a look. (3) Benny Feilhaber. He was perhaps Sporting KC's best player last season, being the creative spark behind 10 goals (4 he scored himself, 6 he assisted), and oftentimes making plays that started the Sporting attack.
SS: Can't really argue with your picks. I'm going to go with Robbie Rogers, Chad Marshall, and Charlie Davies. I could go into a number of reasons why Rogers deserved an invite, not the least of which is the apparent shortage of outside backs in the U.S. arsenal, but I'll let you take Robbie Keane's word for it. Chad Marshall just picked up his third MLS Defender of the Year Award. What better way to reward solid performance than an invite to the National Team Camp. And before you start talking about how old he is (he'll be 31 in August), he's almost three years younger than Jermaine Jones, Klinsmann's current preferred central defender. Finally, Davies. I want to see if the playoff fireworks were just a fluke or if he's capable of performing at the international level. This was a guy who scored in the Confederations Cup and has scored against Mexico IN Mexico. I could make a case that he would've been a better call-up than Bobby Wood.
1) SM: What will it take for the CONCACAF Champions League to get anywhere near the level of the UEFA Champions League?
SS: Honestly, the caliber of play will probably never get there. UEFA has so many deep leagues: England, Spain, Italy, Germany, France… And then there’s power clubs in the Netherlands, Greece, Turkey, Switzerland, the Ukraine, Belgium, Scandinavia… In CONCACAF, the pool just isn’t as deep. However, there’s still a lot of room for it to grow in popularity, and for me that’s going to require someone from outside of Mexico to win the tournament. Since the Champions League era began in 2008-09, all six cup winners have been Mexican clubs. Five times the runner-up has also been from Mexico. The only MLS club to even reach the final was Real Salt Lake, and that was back in 2011. We need an MLS franchise to win the tournament, and preferably one of our big-market teams. LA, New York, Chicago… Teams that will get national media attention. Honestly, one of the big issues is that people don’t know about our Champions League. When Real Salt Lake reached the finals in 2011, the game wasn’t nationally televised, I had to stream in through concacaf.com. The other part of that equation is that our clubs are going to have to take the tournament more seriously. Only 2 of 5 MLS clubs advanced to the Round of 8 this year. That’s just not good enough. So in summary, I think the tournament can get better, but will never be on par with Europe.
SM: I won't say that it's totally impossible for the CCL to get to the level and/or popularity of the UCL. Improbable is more like it. The majority of the CONCACAF nations aren't particularly wealthy and their respective clubs can't inject the massive amounts of cash into training their players that the European clubs can. Having said that, I think if the MLS clubs would start taking the competition more seriously and roster-up deep enough to make longer runs and maybe even win the tournament now and again, it could gain in popularity in this country. It may never be known worldwide like the UEFA Champions League is, but certainly more popular than it is now. Heck, maybe the final could even be on television.
2) SS: In honor of President’s Day give me your Men’s and Women’s Mount Rushmores of American Soccer. For the sake of argument, let’s limit this to players only.
SM: I'm assuming you mean to pick out 4 faces, either men or women for the American Soccer Mount Rushmore. So here we go: (1) Landon Donovan. Retired or no, he's still the face of American Soccer and the best field player we've ever produced. (2) Mia Hamm. Arguably the best woman to ever don the Red, White and Blue. She's a legend and everyone knows it. (3) Alexi Lalas. The first American to ever play in Serie A and one of the best, if not THE best defender we've ever produced. Have to have his face with the huge beard though. Nothing else would do. (4) Timmy Howard. The best goalkeeper we've ever produced and a shining example of the American Spirit. Tourette's syndrome? Fractured vertebrae in his spine? Getting booted from Manchester United? None of that has managed to keep Howard from being a positive influence for American Soccer worldwide.
SS: Since it's my question and take the easy way out and go with four Men and four Women but I will give you my four combined. For the men: (1) John "the Juggler" Harkes. First American to play in the English Premier League, winner of the inaugural MLS Cup with DC United (a title he helped defend a year later), part of the first American team (DC United) to win the CONCACAF Champion's Cup back in 1998 as well as a slough of other honors. (2) Eric Wynalda. Wynalda scored the first goal in MLS history, scored a free kick goal in the 1994 World Cup against Switzerland, and retired from international soccer as the U.S.'s all-time leading scorer making him the most potent scorer at a critical point in the U.S. National Team's history. (3) Landon Donovan. No explanation required. (4) Paul Caligiuri. This one might seem like a head scratcher, but if not for Caligiuri's goal against Trinidad and Tobago in World Cup Qualifying, the U.S. wouldn't have made the 1990 World Cup. Instead the "Shot Heard around the World" put the U.S. through and helped validate their announcement to host the 1994 World Cup. Apologies to Lalas, Tony Meola, Marcelo Balboa, Claudio Reyna, and other greats.
For the women: (1) Mia Hamm. Everyone knows about Mia Hamm. (2) Michelle Akers. Everyone knows about Mia Hamm, but Akers scored 10 goals in the 1991 World Cup including 5 in a quarterfinal win against Chinese Taipei and both goals in a 2-1 win over Norway in the World Cup Final. In 1991 she scored 39 goals in 26 matches and finished with 105 goals in her 14 year international career that ended with 2 World Cups and an Olympic Gold Medal. (3) Kristine Lilly. Lilly earned 352 caps (not a typo) and scored 130 goals in her international career that spanned 4 decades. Lilly appeared in 5 World Cups and 3 Olympics. (4) Brandi Chastain. For similar reasons to my selection of Caligiuri, Chastain's Penalty won a World Cup on American Soil. Apologies to Abby Wambach, Julie Foudy, Tiffeny Milbrett, Christie Rampone and other greats.
Final Four: This might come as a shock to some, but my Mount Rushmore is going to be predominantly female. Our women's teams have won World Cups and Gold Medals, and while the men are a classic underdog story, the success on the field isn't there. So while Landon Donovan makes the cut, the other three spots go to Mia, Michelle and Kristine. Congrats Ladies.
That's all for this week, folks. Follow us on twitter at @cjleonard03 and @SoccerSmith15.